Alexander and us

Xenophanes of Colophon, a pre-Socratic philosopher, declared that if cows and horses had hands, they would depict their gods as cows and horses. Aside from being a comment on the way in which people fashion their gods after themselves, this illustrates the radical freedom of ancient Greek thought – far from the reach of religious castes and monarchies that stifled independent thought in other people. But just as people fashion their gods after themselves, each age shapes the image of its heroes. Today, the director of a major Hollywood film can dare to show Alexander the Great without skirting ancient references to his apparent bisexual habits. Oliver Stone’s wager suggests that today the debate on serious social issues in America has reached a point where such a hero can be presented to a general audience. From historical sources we know that, despite our sense of familiarity with them, the ancient Greeks were very different from us – including their relaxed attitude to the bonds forged between men on military campaigns. In Greece today we are evidently not ready for a public discussion on this. Living in a part of the world that is never peaceful, we have a fundamental need to see ourselves as part of an uninterrupted national identity through the ages. We cannot see Alexander as something other than the great warrior who transmitted Hellenic culture to the furthest corners of the known world. But nothing that we may think or do can affect Alexander’s reputation, his feelings or his sexual preferences. But our fear lest he be depicted as different to the myth we have forged betrays our own sense of insecurity. To paraphrase Xenophanes, it is as if we are afraid that if our gods or heroes appear different to ourselves then our very identity is at risk. This is akin to denying the past, a revelation that we are afraid of our very selves.